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Mercury rising with Sky

Antics by Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi and Sophie Cunningham in the WNBA Finals help create a budding rivalry.

Diana Taurasi, fouling Candace Parker during Game 1, broke a door in Wintrust Arena’s visiting locker room after the Mercury’s loss in Game 4. 
Diana Taurasi, fouling Candace Parker during Game 1, broke a door in Wintrust Arena’s visiting locker room after the Mercury’s loss in Game 4. 
Mike Mattina/Getty Images

Sports rivalries aren’t established in average, regular-season moments. They’re built on big stages, in single-elimination scenarios, with championships on the line.

A best-of-five WNBA Finals series provides numerous moments to create bitter feuds, the kind that are carried into upcoming seasons, fueling excitement and bringing in new fans.

So when the 2021 Finals ended with a title for the Sky, a meme-worthy staredown and a door busted by the fan-dubbed GOAT, Diana Taurasi, the league officially had itself a budding rivalry.

“I think this is good for women’s basketball,” Sky guard-forward Kahleah Copper said ahead of Game 3 of the series. “It’s OK for us to get fired up and get super competitive like that.”

Copper was referring to the moment in Game 2 shared between herself and Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham.

In the second quarter of the Mercury’s overtime win, Cunningham missed a layup and tripped over Copper’s foot as she went for the rebound. Copper also went for the ball and got wrapped up with Cunningham.

Before being separated by official Tiara Cruse, Copper stood over Cunningham, giving photographers just enough time to snap a photo that will live in WNBA fans’ heads.

As if that wasn’t enough fire for fans, Taurasi shoved Cruse in an attempt to get to Cunningham and subsequently was fined $2,500.

When she was asked during the Mercury’s exit interviews about the moment and resulting photo, Cunningham had her own opinion of what happened.

“Anyone who watched the playoffs knows she’s the one who grabbed my neck,” Cunningham said. “If it was me, I would have probably gotten ejected for doing that type of stuff.

“That picture can float around, but she knows what really happened. Any pub is good pub, so put me on all the T-shirts you want. My hair looked nice.”

A day after the Sky’s championship parade, Copper dropped her own line of personalized merchandise, including a hoodie and T-shirt featuring the photo.

Cunningham discussed another play in Game 2 during her exit interview that sent Diamond DeShields to the deck after Cunningham crossed her up.

“Guess you have to tape those ankles a little tighter,” Cunningham said.

When the series moved to Chicago, the Sky handed the Mercury a record-breaking loss. The 86-50 decision in Game 3 was the biggest loss in WNBA Finals history.

Taurasi vowed her team would be better in Game 4, but the Sky rallied from a 14-point deficit to secure their first championship. After the game, the Mercury declined to participate in league-mandated media availability, and the organization was fined $10,000.

The Mercury addressed the media days later during their exit interviews and said it was an emotional moment. Taurasi said her team was devastated, so much so that she reportedly broke a door in the Wintrust Arena locker room.

“There was a lot of doors in [Wintrust Arena],” Taurasi said when asked to set the record straight.

That door was on stage at the Sky’s championship rally Tuesday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. When asked if it was the door that Taurasi had broken, Sky coach/general manager James Wade gave a one-word answer.

“Yes,” he said.

Since 2019, a rivalry between the Sky and Aces has been festering. Another playoff moment, the “Hamby Heave” by the Aces’ Dearica Hamby, helped spark it.

But the Sky and Aces haven’t met in the playoffs since, tempering the tension a bit. It’s hard to imagine any amount of time will be enough to cool down the red-hot rivalry between the 2021 WNBA champs and the Mercury.